Summary of Discussion on The Book Collector

Many thanks to Kat for very kindly providing the following summary of our recent discussion in the Melodrama Research Group.

 

The Book Collector

Where is the architecture?!

Discussion – Monday 17th October

Continuing with the focus on the gothic, but diverging from the cinematic tradition, The Melodrama group decided to read and discuss a modern take on the Gothic tale by reading Alice Thompson’s The Book Collector.

An overview of our discussion clearly pointed towards mixed feelings towards the novel; as much as the group endeavoured to be positive, there was an overall feeling of disappointment, bordering on frustration and annoyance with The Book Collector. The positives that were initially discussed were the chapters when Violet was in the asylum and the transition between the last chapters. It was considered by some of us that the strength of the book could be found in the chapters based in the asylum as this was where the quality of the writing peaked. It was interesting to have been written from Violet’s point of view and the account of being committed to an asylum a vivid portrait. It was commented on that it was refreshing to realise there was no Prince Charming coming to rescue Violet and in so doing, the narrative resisted a more traditional gothic trajectory.

However, it was also noted that the pacing of the narrative was uneven; that the book longed for more ‘twists in the tale’ towards the closing chapters, and there was little for the reader to emotionally engage with. Many in the group found it challenging, if not impossible to emotionally connect, and care for, Violet, which was a troubling aspect for the group. Another point of contention was the lack of focus and description of the house, which is a significant trope of the Gothic. As much as there were extensive descriptions of meal times, which provided an insight into the size and routine of the home, it never substantially compensated for a more gothic rendering of the home. Following on from the lack of focus on the house, the group found it was difficult to place the period the novel was supposedly set in, other than the write up found on the back cover of the book. The time period was not explicit enough, with oddities occurring such as references to ‘calling from the office’. What couldn’t be decided upon at this point in the discussion was whether this was a strategy of the novel, or rather inexperienced and ‘bad writing’.

With the mention of a supposed writing style, the discussion then turned to whether the book was a piece of fan fiction. It was noted that Thompson appeared to take great joy in utilising motifs of the Gothic and that the novel as a whole drew upon, or was reminiscent of, many other sources – the tale of BlueBeard; films such as Gaslight, Rebecca, The Secret Beyond the Door; and literature, Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, Yellow Wallpaper, and Frankenstein; as well as the tradition of fairy-tales. The group 1 Welcome Gaslightnoted how the book was to an extent, reminiscent of Angela Carter’s work. However, Thompson’s writing style was problematic on several levels. Firstly, the writing appears to be dispassionate and detached, but the group felt there wasn’t enough evidence to deduce whether or not this was a deliberate act of the writing. Some elements and plot devices were ill-timed and seemingly dispensable, such as Clara’s father, and there were missed opportunities to develop the more interesting ideas, such as the fetish for books, and the tension between the book as physical object and ideas contained within the covers.

Secondly, the novel lacked the intangible “spirit” of a Gothic novel. It was observed by the group that although The Book Collector adhered to all the co-ordinates of a gothic novel by including all the necessary tropes and concerns, it lacked a Gothic tone. In comparison to novels, such as The Woman in Black, this novel did not feel monstrous enough. Structure wise, some chapters were too short leading to an uneven pace. At best it was felt that the novel was heavy handed in places, and drew upon too many other forms and sources. In so doing, the book fell between working as a fairy-tale andwoman-in-black working as a gothic novel. In essence, Thompson fundamentally misunderstood how to create a Gothic atmosphere. Whereas Angela Carter created adult focused re-workings of fairy-tales, Thompson appears unsure in what direction she would like her novel to follow. The group thought the novel worked as a first draft, but would have benefitted from further re-workings and a more robust editing process. As it stands the novel does too little to direct the reader to any authorial intent and thus adds to questioning what was the purpose behind writing the novel.

 

 

Many thanks Kat for suggesting the novel, leading the discussion and providing this excellent summary.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Call For Papers: Gothic Feminism Symposium at the University of Kent, Thursday 26th-Friday 27th of May

Exciting News! Melodrama Research Group members Frances and Tamar are organising a symposium entitled: Gothic Feminism: The Representation of the Gothic Heroine in Cinema. This builds on our Gothic focus over the last 6 months and seems especially apt given our most recent screening of The Stepford Wives (1975). The symposium will take place at the University of Kent Canterbury campus from Thursday 26th to Friday 27th of May. Our confirmed keynote is Catherine Spooner of Lancaster University: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/english-and-creative-writing/about-us/people/catherine-spooner

 

Gothic blog untitled

 

 

Gothic Feminism:

The Representation of the Gothic Heroine in Cinema

University of Kent

Thursday 26th – Friday 27th May 2016

Confirmed Keynote: Catherine Spooner, Lancaster University

 

CALL FOR PAPERS

Since its literary beginnings, the Gothic has featured distinctive female characters who engage with, and are often central to, the uncanny narratives characteristic of the genre. The eponymous ‘Gothic heroine’ conjures up images of the imperilled young and inexperienced woman, cautiously exploring the old dark house or castle where she is physically confined by force – imprisoned by the tale’s tyrant – or metaphorically trapped by societal expectations of marriage and domesticity. The Gothic heroine is habitually motivated by an investigative spirit and usually explores her surroundings in a quest to uncover a sinister secret which will, for example, reveal her love interest’s past or provide explanation for her supposedly supernatural encounters.

The importance of the Gothic’s women protagonists is not limited to these narrative functions but extends to considerations of the genre itself; the Gothic can be defined by its portrayal of the heroine. Ellen Moers’ work on female literary traditions is a key text in this respect, identifying the ‘Female Gothic’ as a distinctive mode within the genre. The ‘Female Gothic’ highlights the prevalence of female writers exploring the Gothic mode and the implied woman reader engaging with the heroine’s exploits. Moers writes that ‘Female Gothic’ texts – such as those by Ann Radcliffe – convey a specific form of ‘heroinism’ which evokes the idea of a ‘literary feminism’.

Moers’ work demonstrates how the Gothic and the Gothic heroine intersect with feminist criticism because, as Helen Hanson notes, ‘the female gothic bears a political charge’ (Hanson, 2007, 63). This ‘political charge’ is equally applicable to the Gothic film and its representation of the heroine. In cinema, the Gothic enjoyed particular attention with the 1940s cycle of melodrama and noir films which emphasised the Gothic traits of the old dark house, mystery and domestic threat, with the Gothic heroine’s exploits central throughout. Films such as Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1940/1944) and Secret Beyond the Door (1947) are exemplary of this trend. Several writers have explored the political and feminist ramifications of these films which have been seen as Gothic or, as Mary Ann Doane writes, ‘paranoid woman’s films’ (Doane, 1987). The reception and interpretation of these films is inextricably linked to societal contexts in which these films were made, as Diane Waldman notes how the war and immediate post-war period offer distinct visions – and varying degrees of validation – of the heroine’s feminine perspective.

This symposium seeks to re-engage with these theories and reflect specifically upon the depiction of the Gothic heroine in film. Since the release of Rebecca over 75 years ago, has our evaluation of the Gothic heroine necessarily changed? How does the Gothic heroine relate to its literary predecessors? Can one speak of a cinematic Gothic heroine, distinct and separate from the original Gothic literature? Victoria Nelson notes that, in film history, ‘[in] a relatively short span of time, the perennial swooning damsel in distress had turned into a millennial female jock’ (Nelson, 2013, 136). How have the Gothic heroines of the screen evolved and is it possible to trace this specific lineage in contemporary representations? Whether the Gothic heroine be a ‘damsel’ or a ‘jock’, this inevitably raises the question of interpretation: how should the Gothic heroine be evaluated and can such a representation be thought of as ‘feminist’?

This symposium will engage with these questions of representation, interpretation and feminist enquiry in relation to the Gothic heroine throughout film history including present day incarnations, with films such as Crimson Peak (2015) directly re-engaging with the Gothic genre. This event seeks to wrestle with the difficulties posed by the Gothic as a mode which emphasises terror, the uncanny and suspense, alongside representations of women protagonists who given agency as investigators motivating narrative development but are subjected to horror for the story’s pleasure. These difficulties are not new to the Gothic genre. As Fred Botting notes: ‘Women’s gothic, it seems, straddles contradiction and challenge, persecution and pleasure’ (Botting, 2008, 153). Similarly, David Punter and Glennis Byron write that ‘[whether] female Gothic should be seen as radical or conservative has been an issue of particular concern’ (Punter and Bryon, 2004, 280). This symposium will illuminate the concerns, contradictions and challenged posed by the Gothic heroine on-screen through reference to specific case studies which re-engage with older examples of the Gothic and/or explore contemporary films, reflecting upon the renewed academic and commercial interest in the genre of recent years.

Topics can include but are not limited to:

  • How interpretations of the Gothic heroine relates to large feminist criticisms. Can Gothic film be said to be ‘progressive’? Is the Gothic heroine always defined in relation to a patriarchy?
  • In light of Moers’ work, can one speak of ‘heroinism’ and a ‘cinematic feminism’ to Gothic film?
  • Historical explorations of the Gothic heroine in cinema. How has representations of the heroine changed and how does this relate to larger social and political contextual concerns?
  • Contemporary incarnations of the Gothic heroine.
  • Comparisons between the cinematic Gothic heroine and the genre’s literary beginnings.
  • On-screen adaptations of Gothic literary texts.
  • How does the Gothic heroine compare to other distinctive representations of female protagonists in genres such as melodrama and horror? Is the Gothic heroine a distinct and separate entity apart from other genres, or is she inextricably linked to them?
  • Can one speak of a separate Gothic heroine tradition in cinema?
  • The reception of Gothic film and Gothic heroine audiences.
  • The relationship between the heroine and space, particularly domestic spaces such as the house. How does architecture relate to the representation of the Gothic heroine?
  • The significance of costume and fashion to the Gothic heroine’s identity.
  • Comparisons between the Gothic heroine and other protagonists, such as the archetypal ‘other woman’ or male lead. How, for example, is the concept of ‘Gothic feminism’ affected by the genre’s representation of masculinity/masculinities?
  • The Gothic heroine as virgin or mother figure.

Please submit proposals of 500 words, along with a short biographical note (250 words) to gothicfeminism2016@gmail.com by 18th March 2016.

Frances Kamm and Tamar Jeffers McDonald, University of Kent.

References

Botting, Fred. (2008). Gothic Romanced: Consumption, Gender and Technology in Contemporary Fictions. Oxford: Routledge.

Doane, Mary Ann. (1987). The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hanson, Helen. (2007). Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film. London and New York: I. B. Tauris.

Moers, Ellen. (1976). Literary Women. New York: Doubleday and Co.

Nelson, Victoria. (2013). ‘Daughters of Darkness’. In: Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film. London: BFI.

Punter, David. and Byron, Glennis. (2004). The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell.

Waldman, Diane. (1983). ‘”At last I can tell it to someone!” Feminine point of view and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s’, Cinema Journal 23: 29-40.

Summary of Discussion on Rain

Posted by Sarah

Our post-screening discussion ranged widely and encompassed: analysis of Joan Crawford/Sadie’s first appearance; Sadie’s costume, especially compared to the other female characters; Crawford’s performance – in particular the many layers of performance; a comparison between Mildred in Of Human Bondage and Sadie in Rain;  noting of Crawford and Bette Davis’ contrasting acting styles; Sadie’s antagonistic relationship with the reformer Davidson; Walter Huston’s performance; the film’s happy ending.  Throughout discussion was illuminated by reference to Maugham’s short story and the 1928 silent version of the film which starred Gloria Swanson.

Rain first appWe began with discussion of one of the film’s most memorable moments: Joan Crawford’s first appearance.  It is especially significant in terms of female representation that Crawford/Sadie is introduced by shots of her body, which themselves are fragmented. (See Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ for more on the fragmented female body and the ‘male gaze’[i].) First Crawford/Sadie’s right, heavily bangled, hand almost thumps a door post. This is quickly followed by a shot of her left hand making a similar gesture towards the opposite door post. Then her right foot is planted heavily on the ground. A similar action shortly occurs with the left. This is more than the usual star entrance as it makes such a bold statement. Indeed the character/star punctuates the scene with the forceful movement of her limbs. In addition, the stance this pose would constitute if we were to see it in full looks incredibly ungainly, with Crawford/Sadie’s feet seemingly planted quite firmly apart. As such it appears less than ladylike. Finally a shot of Crawford/Sadie’s face gives us a view of her insolently sulky mouth which is accentuated by the heavily outlined lips. Through Crawford/Sadie’s dangling cigarette she utters her first word, a huskily intoned ‘Boys’. It is an astonishingly powerful, and not at all subtle, introduction of both the star (Crawford) and the character (the prostitute Sadie). It was mentioned that a similar scene does not occur in the 1928 silent film starring Gloria Swanson.

The costume was also commented upon at length. Crawford/Sadie wore a tight gingham dress, with a wide white belt further accentuating her curves, for much of the film. The accessories worn at this point, and a little further into the film, are of great significance. Despite the stifling heat of the island, Sadie has a fur draped around her neck and a hat which resembled swan feathers covering most of her head.  Sadie is clearly a woman who cares about appearances, and indeed her own performance in everyday life.

Crawford/Sadie’s first appearance is memorable not just due to the energy and the Rain transfromedsomewhat startlingly heavily made up face, but the fact a very similar scene occurs towards the film’s end. Before this happens though, Sadie undergoes a spiritual and physical transformation.  She is seen with minimal make-up, brushed-out hair and wearing darker, more modest clothes. When she reverts back to type this is reflected by the return to her previous outfit, make-up and hairstyle. This is a great example of Jane Gaines’ assertion that dress often tells the woman’s story.[ii] Crawford/Sadie is re-introduced by shots which once more fragment her body.  It was also noted that Crawford/Sadie’s costume marks her out from the other women in the film – the actresses Beulah Bondi and Kendall Lee playing the characters Mrs Davidson Crawfrd and the other female charactersand Mrs Macphail. The clothes of the latter pair are more modest than Sadie’s and tend to be in blocks of one colour in contrast to the gingham patterned dress.  Similar delineation between the female characters also occurred with Davis/Mildred in Of Human Bondage in relation the actresses Kay Johnson and Frances Dee who play Philip’s other love interests Norah and Sally.

Crawford’s performance also prompted much discussion. It was noted that physically Rain silent Swansonshe looked quite a bit like Gloria Swanson at certain points. Lies revealed that this might well have spilled over into performance too as Crawford had yet to find her style and imitated Swanson’s earlier portrayal. Indeed comparisons between Crawford and other female stars in melodramas (primarily Swanson and Davis) were found to be useful in examining Crawford’s performance.     This Bette_davis_of_human_bondageis made easier by the fact Of Human Bondage and Rain contain several parallels.  Both are based on Somerset Maugham stories and were produced at a similar time (1932 and 1934). In addition both the female characters are prostitutes for at least some of the narrative, and marked something of a departure for Davis and Crawford. There are, however, several big differences between the performances of Davis and Crawford, and the characters they play.

Crawford is required to perform on several levels. There is the bold front Sadie assumes as the prostitute joking with potential clients – brazenly drinking whisky straight out of the bottle in public and dancing with abandon. Sadie’s insincere acknowledgment of her sins is juxtaposed with her contrasting sincere repentance. When Sadie finally reverts to type, this bears similarities to her very first appearance also has significant differences. We particularly noted the transformation scene in which Sadie gains religious enlightenment.  Its importance is indicated through the staging on the main staircase (important to several melodramas) and the camerawork. Sadie’s adversary, the religious reformer Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston) stands solidly at the top of the stairs while Sadie looks up from the bottom.  She climbs the stairs, ready to take him to task. There is little movement apart from the ascension of the stairs, though Crawford/Sadie’s worrying of the top banister indicates her distress. She descends the steps and appears ready to go.  Davidson is seen is close shot standing still and a cut to Sadie reveals that she is also riveted to the spot.  The moment in which Sadie is Rain stairstransformed occurs shortly after and is visible onscreen. The camera lingers on her beautifully lit, tear-stained face as a look of realisation starts in her eyes and then spreads across her features. The camera then moves out to give a better view of Sadie and Davidson, now pictured together in the shot. The scene ends with an attention-pulling crane shot which exits the building.

Crawford and GarganThere is further opportunity for Crawford to show her acting skills. When William Gargan’s character O’Hara (referred to as ‘Handsome’ by Sadie – another example of her playing the gallery) soon returns to take Sadie away to a new life Crawford plays the scene rather robotically to start with. She speaks in a monotone and refuses to look at O’Hara/Gargan. Total disengagement is not possible though as Handsome continues and Sadie briskly pushes him away, raising her voice as she does do. Crawford ably performs Sadie’s conflicting desires as she struggles to resist temptation.  The shift between the obvious exaggerated performance Sadie puts on for the surrounding men and the more quiet moments (which occur later on in the film when we first see her alone) help to create a complex and sympathetic character. It was mentioned that perhaps the shifts between different levels of performance by Crawford were what led to the negative contemporaneous critical reviews. Though, as Lies noted, Crawford’s performance has been viewed more favourably since. (Apparently there is still little written on Rain, and pre-code Joan, however.)

By contrast, while Davis’ performance in Of Human Bondage is by no means on one-level, we rarely get a glimpse of different aspects of what might be considered the ‘real’ Mildred. Of course the notion of a ‘real’ character is a very fraught and abstract concept, more so when star image is added to the mix. Here it is very noticeable though, since Mildred the character is always performing; she puts on an accent and gives herself airs to appear more refined and she manipulates Philip, and other men, by exaggerated dismissive gestures or flirtatious behaviour. In addition, Davis/Mildred is always moving – facially and bodily – a whole performance in itself. There are two main scenes in Of Human Bondage when Mildred is not performing. The first is the tirade she unleashes Of Human Bondage tiradeagainst Philip which is very physical and exaggerated. The second is the unglamorous scene in which she is seriously ill and escorted from her lodging to hospital. Here she is incapable of moving much. In both of these scenes Mildred’s real self is revealed as truly horrible: in the first her vindictive character is fully vented and in the second she is physically hideous.

We found it interesting that there was such a variance between Crawford’s, at times, fairly restrained playing with little movement and Davis’s constant movement and big gestures in these two melodramas. Especially because melodrama is a genre in which performance is often thought to be related to exaggeration.  Lies highlighted the difference between Crawford’s naturalistic and Davis’ theatrical approaches. In addition, it was thought that Crawford’s instinctive playing coincided with Sadie’s almost primitive awareness of danger.  As soon as, at first sight, Sadie sees Davidson looking intently at her she appears to recognise the danger, first returning the look and then glancing down.  The different types of performances are also related to the fact that while Davis is seen primarily as an actress, Crawford is largely remembered as a star with little range.

Of course part of the difference is due to the characters and the fact that while Mildred is not the central character in Of Human Bondage, Sadie is Rain’s protagonist.   There are many other Crawford and Davis performances in melodramas available for us to compare and contrast to get a better idea of trends. (This could be a very fruitful, and enjoyable, line for future screenings!) It reveals that as well as the infinite variety of melodrama which has been evident in our screenings (male melodrama, animation, theatrical adaptations, Honk Kong cinema etc), even this rather narrow subgenre of melodrama, the Woman’s Film, is diverse.

Rain HustonIn addition to the sympathy created by Crawford’s performance, it was noted that the film, like the short story, promoted Sadie’s position as the correct one. The Doctor, who is central in Maugham’s story, is seen to be sympathetic to her plight. But he is not the main male character in the film, neither is this role filled by Crawford/Sadie’s love interest Handsome: instead the reformer Davidson takes centre stage. His anguish in his moment of weakness is one of the film’s key moments. As well as being pictured (it was only ever implied in the story) this is heightened by the film’s wonderfully atmospheric use of sound.  The beating of rain which has been persistent for much of the film reaches its pitch and is accompanied by diegetic drumming.  Contrast is present between the changeability in Crawford/Sadie’s performance and situation and Davidson’s immovable morality. Huston conveys this formidably, with a stolidly still uprightness in which the framing colludes.

Rain BondiWe also observed the way Sadie was contrasted to other characters, especially the female ones. While the Doctor’s wife, like him, is low-key, Mrs Davidson is as aggressive as her husband in demanding Sadie’s salvation.  Mrs Davidson is shown to be vindictive, rather than Christian, in her attitude though. She exaggerates when telling her husband that Sadie spoke back to her. We also thought it was fascinating that Mrs Davidson is the subject of the film’s last shot. After Sadie walks off with Handsome (a happy ending not present in the story, but almost obligatory in Hollywood narratives) the camera stays with the newly-widowed Mrs Davidson clasping her hands to her face.

While Sadie does have a happy ending, which in some ways domesticates her, we thought it significant that she still appears in many ways similar to the Sadie we saw at the very start of the film.  We concluded our discussion by mentioning how unusual it was for a sinning Hollywood heroine to end a film unreformed, especially after the Stanwych miracle woman con artist evangeliststricter policing of the Hays Code in 1934. Two films starring Barbara Stanwyck are good examples of pre and post-code attitudes to female character and crime. In the pre-code The Miracle Woman (1931) we see Florence Fallon Stanwyck miracle woman salvation armymove from con artist evangelist to member of the Salvation Army. This clearly contrasts to Rain’s treatment of Sadie. Unsurprisingly, Stanwyck’s character Lee Leander in a later film, Remember the Night (1940), is punished for her shoplifting crimes by being sent to prison.

Many thanks to Lies for providing such a wonderful introduction to Joan and Rain.


[i] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” Feminisms: an anthology of literary theory and criticism (1975): 438-48.

[ii]Gaines, Jane. “Costume and Narrative: how dress tells the woman’s story.” Fabrications: costume and the female body (1990): 180-211.

Do, as always, log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 16th October, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the second of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 16th of October in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Lies’ choice: Rain (1932, Lewis Milestone, 94 mins)

Lies has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Joan Crawford and Rain

Rain, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s short story Miss Sadie Thompson, deals with the adventures of a group of travelers who are temporarily stranded on the South Pacific island of Pago Pago. As young prostitute Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford), wanted in America for a crime that is never named, spends her time socializing with the US marines posted on the island, she becomes a thorn in the eye of fanatical preacher Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston), who decides she needs salvation.

               Rain Crawford Although Joan Crawford was one of the key box office stars for the year 1932, the film was not a major hit at the time; Variety wrote that “It turns out to be a mistake to have assigned the Sadie Thompson role to Miss Crawford. It shows her off unfavorably. The dramatic significance of it all is beyond her range.” Motion Picture was kinder and pointed out that “a picture with such a long stage and screen history behind it starts with a handicap of inevitable comparisons”, calling Crawford “neither the greatest ‘Sadie Thompson’ of theatrical history, nor the worst by any means”. This review touches upon an important consideration in terms of Rain as a film, which is the fact that the story had previously been made into a play (1923) and into a silent film (1928, as Sadie Thompson). It would also be remade in 1953 with Rita Hayworth in the title role as Miss Sadie Thompson.

Crawford herself appears to have been on Variety’s side, and said in later years that she hoped “they burn every print of this turkey that is in existence”. She blamed the film’s issues on its writer and director, as well as on her younger self, who “took the bull by the horns and did my own Sadie Thompson. I was wrong every scene of the way”[1]. Despite this judgment even by its star, however, the film is one of Joan Crawford’s better-remembered early performances today.

Since both Of Human Bondage and Rain were written by the same author and made, as films, around the same time, they lend themselves quite well to a comparison of the performances and stardom of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. These two stars have frequently been grouped together as similar types – both often playing, as Basinger puts it, “exaggerated”, extraordinary women, particularly in their later careers[2] – yet have also often been contrasted with each other as “the actress” (Davis) and “the star” (Crawford).

To watch (or re-watch) Crawford in Rain: http://archive.org/details/rain1932

Link to the original short story:

http://maugham.classicauthors.net/Rain/

Link to the Swanson film:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWtW_RqSwAk&list=PL272B5585907AB161

Connected to last week’s question on radio versus film melodrama, how might melodramatic performance differ from silent to sound film? Is silent film, with its reliance on gesture and facial expression, particularly suited to the genre?


[1] Roy Newquist, Conversations with Joan Crawford, p. 76

[2] Jeanine Basinger, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960, p. 167

Do join us if you can, for what promises to be a very interesting and enjoyable film.

Summary of Discussion on Of Human Bondage

Posted by Sarah

Our first post-screening discussion after the lengthy Summer Break was lively, and encompassed several areas relating to melodrama, this specific film and Bette Davis. It included comment on: Bette Davis’ performance; the film as an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel;  the film’s music; comparison of the female characters; later adaptations of the novel; stars Leslie Howard and Bette Davis’ other work together; Somerset Maugham as a writer.

Unsurprisingly the discussion began with comments on Davis’ tour de force performance. Davis’ ability to convey Mildred Rogers’ attempts to appear more refined through her voice was deemed especially effective. She shifted effortlessly, and at the appropriate moments, between strangulated cockney and strangulated cockney with a slight hint of unconvincing cultivation. This undulating movement was also present in Davis’ physical performance. This was quite exaggerated.  Using gestures and facial expressions liberally, Davis wonderfully conveyed both Mildred’s flirtatious nature and her at times pointedly indifferent attitude to Philip. We especially noted Davis’ use of Of Human Bondage eyesher eyes to express these contradictory aspects of Mildred’s character.  Occasionally Mildred with her head tipped down, steadily and flirtatiously looked up at Philip across the top of her champagne glass (see picture on right).  More often though, she flicked her eyes away from him, either quickly or slowly, to signal her disagreement with him or to reveal that she was mulling over an offer he had made.

Of Human Bondage tiradeDespite the fact that throughout the film Davis employed theatrics, and could hardly be described as restrained, her two big scenes were stunningly effective. In Mildred’s tirade against Philip, which we discussed at length, Davis ratcheted her performance up a gear. There is constant movement in this scene. Both by Davis, who turns to and away from the camera whilst striding away from it,  and by the camera itself which follows Davis at some speed. Extra impetus was added by the fact that the scene was fairly quiet up to this point.  It was also the first time we saw Mildred really furious. This was prompted by Philip’s comment that Mildred disgusts him. This, in turn, was in response to her attempt to seduce him. After repeating Philip’s words with her voice and body shaking with disbelief and anger, the scene reaches its climax as Davis performs a violent gesture. She tells Philip that every time he has kissed her she wiped her mouth. Mildred clearly thinks this is a useful phrase to torment Philip with, and she repeats it, atof human bondage mouth increased volume. Davis also emphasises the point by ferociously rubbing her arm across her heavily lipsticked mouth.  It is notable that while the gesture is arguably one of the film’s most memorable moments, partly due to Davis’ heightened performance, it does not appear in the novel.

What made it unforgettable is that as Mildred is shouting angrily with mad, staring eyes, she is also smiling, or perhaps more correctly, grimacing. She clearly relishes having the opportunity to express her true feelings to Philip. This was compared to other moments in Davis films when her characters’ real self is unleashed, for example In This Our Life (1942, John Huston).

Davis’ other ‘big’ scene revealed more of Mildred’s vindictiveness. This is very possibly even worse than her spontaneous reaction to Philip’s comment as she has had time to consider her actions.  She gleefully rampages through Philip’s apartment, destroying the works of art which mean the most to him, but which she has declared she finds vulgar.The music which accompanies the following scene is revealing. Mildred coolly picks up ‘baby’ from her cot in preparation of them both leaving Philip’s apartment.  There is a ‘frowsy’, almost comedic, quality to the music. While the audience has never entertained the same illusions about Mildred as Philip has, it suggests that after her tirade and the following rampage the film is now signalling through music that her real nature is indeed shabby. It was mentioned that apparently after the first screening of the film, some of its music was changed as it was considered too comedic in places.

Our focus on performance, and in particular specific moments of heighted emotion and gesture was related to some of the discussion we engaged in at our previous screening sessions. Of special interest, and worthy of further consideration, is how these instances are juxtaposed with elements of restraint.

of human bondage novelAs with some of our previous discussions, we spoke about the suffering woman. While the film showcased Davis’ performance, it was perhaps less about Mildred’s suffering than Philip’s.  This is similar to the source novel.  Much of its 700 pages detailed Philip’s childhood, his time spend living abroad, his medical training and his later search for employment. Unsurprisingly the 83 minute film dispensed with much of the novel’s plot. The fact it chose to focus on Philip and Mildred as its main characters was testament to the pernicious effect Mildred had on Philip and clearly related to Hollywood’s privileging of the romantic couple.

of human bondage kay johnsonPhilip’s other romantic relationships Of Human Bondage Frances dee(with Norah, played by Kay Johnson, left, and Sally, played by Frances Dee, right) were given little screen time, not really enough to compete with Mildred’s central position. The female characters and performances other than Mildred/Davis were very restrained.  Other characters (such as Dr Jacobs, the medical student Griffiths and especially the flamboyant Athelny) were sketched more broadly. We thought these characterisations probably lacked depth because they were given very little time to make their impression. It is perhaps also telling that these are all played by male actors – Desmond Roberts, Reginald Denny and Reginald Owen respectively. While the performance styles differ to the lesser female characters, they also supply contrast to Davis and Howard’s more nuanced portrayals.

Some of the film’s more avant garde touches were also discussed. We noted the straight-to-camera acting of Davis and Howard in particular, during which eyelines did not match and the 180 degree rule was violated. The film’s ending which shows Philip and Sally crossing a busy street was deemed particularly odd. We presume that Philip is telling Sally of Mildred’s death, and the fact he is now free, but the unnecessarily loud traffic noise drowns out the dialogue. There did not seem to be any real reason for this, especially as we had already seen Davis at her most unglamorous as the dying Mildred was collected from her room and taken to hospital.

There was also a dreamlike quality to much of the film, not just during the projection of of Human Bondage dreamPhilip’s dreams. The latter afforded a greater opportunity for Davis to display her acting skills as in these Mildred is far more responsive to Philip, especially facially. In his dreams Philip imagines Mildred speaking with Received Pronunciation. As the ‘real’ Mildred, Davis shows Mildred’s doomed attempts to achieve this accent. This is revealing of Philip’s prejudices and it is also notable that in the dream sequences his physical disability has disappeared. This split between reality and dream also effectively highlights the unusual  social realism of the film and Hollywood’s usual focus on the glamour of coupledom and romance.

Of Human Bondage Henreid ParkerWe wondered about later versions of the story. In 1946 Paul Henreid (Davis’ co-star in Now Voyager 1942 and Deception 1946) and Eleanor Parker starred in a Hollywood remake directed by Edmund Goulding (who often collaborated with Davis).  Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey starred in the 1964 UK film (see a clip of Mildred’s death scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8iVYV93BYw). Interestingly this was written by Bryan Forbes and partly directed by him (uncredited) alongside the UK’s Ken Hughes and Hollywood’s Henry Hathaway. Forbes is known for his kitchen sink drama The L Shaped Room in 1962.

This highlights further melodrama and British social realism’s connections, mentioned in last term’s discussion on Love on the Dole (1941).

TV adaptations were made in a 1949 episode of Studio One starring Charlton Heston and Felicia Montealegre (watch the whole episode here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klGfU5VKGAc)  and as part of  Somerset Maugham TV Theatre  in 1952.  Cloris Leachman appeared as Mildred.

PetrifiedWe also discussed Howard and Davis’ other films together. They appeared in The Petrified Forest (1936) and It’s Love I’m After (1937) – both directed by Archie Mayo.  While the former could also be described as a melodrama, a gangster melodrama, the latter is a light romantic comedy in which Howard and Davis play a bickering couple. Performance is central to this film too, however as their characters are actors. (Do take a quick look on www.youtube.com for clips and trailers.)

Discussion ended with brief mention of the critical evaluation of Maugham as a novelist. MaughamHe is considered by some to be trashy, and this complements Mildred’s character in Of Human Bondage. Unusually for a male author can be considered middlebrow. We will look into this more next week when we screen Rain (1932) which is a screen translation of his 1921 short story.

Many thanks to Ann-Marie for choosing such a wonderful film which certainly gave us plenty to chew over…

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

 

Short Story: A House to Let

Posted by Sarah

Since we have not had much of a chance to explore melodramatic literature in our meetings, I thought exploring a short(ish) story might be interesting, as well as fairly manageable.

Ahouse to let House to Let was written jointly by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Adelaide Anne Procter for the 1858 Christmas edition of Dickens’ Household Words. The first three writers are, of course, closely linked to melodrama since it infuses many of their novels. Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), and many others in his oeuvre, deploy melodramatic plots, while Collins’ The Woman in White (1860) rests on coincidences, and Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) focuses on the suffering eponymous heroine.

 

(For more on Dickens and melodrama see Juliet Johns’ Dickens’s villains: melodrama, character, popular culture. Oxford University Press, 2003.)

Procter’s name may not be as well-known today as the others, but in her time she was considered by some to be the country’s second favourite poet – after Alfred Lord Tennyson (according to Gill Gregory, “Procter, Adelaide Anne (1825–1864)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. September 2004.)

house to let radio 4The story concerns an elderly lady and the mysterious goings on in the house opposite: the ‘House to Let’ of the title. In addition to the more obvious melodramatic elements of the story, it should be interesting to analyse how each author deals with melodrama.

Dickens and Collins wrote the first chapter, “Over the Way”, and the last chapter “Let at Last” together, and each of the writers wrote one of the intervening chapters: Gaskell “The Manchester Marriage”, Dickens “Going into Society”, Procter “Three Evenings in the House” and Collins “Trottle’s Report”.

It has been adapted fairly recently (in 2006) for a Radio 4 drama which was directed by Ned Chaillet and starred Marcia Warren.

Find the novella via the Gutenberg Project at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2324

Alternatively, access it on the internet archive: http://archive.org/details/ahousetolet02324gut

Visit our additional blog http://melodramaresearchgroupextra.wordpress.com/ for more information.

Do, as always, log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.